Review by Jacquelin Hipes
As Paul Berger (Johnny Galecki) affirms at the beginning of The Cleanse, “We all have bad days, right?” It takes more than a bad day to drive someone into the featureless office building that houses a pitch meeting for a weekend retreat hosted by Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt), creator of a popular lemon juice cleanse. Abandoned at the altar by his fiancée and recently laid off, Paul feels a bone-deep dissatisfaction with his softening waistline, a sparse and lonely apartment, and the general melancholy that has infiltrated his life. A late-night television commercial entices him to said building, where Paul and several other candidates undergo a strange audition process for a bunk at Roberts’ retreat.
Paul and three other candidates receive invitations: Maggie (Anna Friel), whom Paul felt a glimmer of affection towards at the pitch, as well as Laurie (Diana Bang) and her smart aleck boyfriend Eric (Kyle Gallner). A waiver warning of the risk of accidental death and an ominously silent drive to the retreat suggest that Roberts’ method may involve more than fresh-squeezed citrus. The group’s introduction to the program straddles a line between horror and parody: a limping, gangly Igor-esque assistant (Kevin J. O’Connor) hauls luggage up to their cabins, while Roberts’ partner (Anjelica Huston) provides the necessary custom juices and a few New Age rituals to start the rejuvenation process.
Like the self-help industry that The Cleanse parodies, what began as a metaphorical cleansing becomes a literal expulsion. After a restless night Paul—and, it turns out, the others as well—vomits up a slippery creature that’s the physical embodiment of all his unhappiness. His initial repulsion and fear quickly gives way to acceptance, then a kind of tentative affection as Paul feeds and comforts it. What’s expected of the patients once they reach the third and final stage of their treatment might be inevitable, but the increasingly charismatic personality of their cleanse-critters makes Maggie and Paul reticent to complete their treatment.
The Cleanse juggles elements of horror, parody, and dramedy with reasonably smooth results. Special effects aficionados will be pleased to note that the creatures are rendered practically; where computer animation might step in, writer/director Bobby Miller instead leaves matters up to the viewer’s imagination. That restraint keeps a slightly outlandish premise from swerving into utter ridiculousness.
Galecki never strays too far from his Big Bang Theory repertoire, which works just fine for a man like Paul, while Friel does an admirable job as the more enigmatic Maggie. Their burgeoning relationship is what holds together a predictable third act, driving home the idea that we must be willing to confront our demons to defeat them, but that doesn’t mean we have to do so alone.